Caffeine

What is it? Caffeine is a stimulant, commonly found in coffee and tea.
INCI Caffeine
Appearance Fine white powder
Usage rate 0.1–1%
Scent Nothing very noticeable
pH 6.9 (1% solution)
Solubility Water
Why do we use it in formulations? Caffeine increases circulation and reduces puffiness, making it a popular ingredient in products for mature skin and under-eye applications. It can also help reduce water retention, creating a slimming effect.
Do you need it? No
Refined or unrefined? It is best to purchase isolated, concentrated caffeine.
Strengths Very effective de-puffing active.
Weaknesses Not a good choice for anyone sensitive to caffeine.
Alternatives & Substitutions I don’t know of anything terribly suitable; there are some caffeine extracts made from ingredients that contain caffeine (like tea or coffee) that are less concentrated than caffeine powder. If you want to use a plant extract instead of pure caffeine powder you will need to use more; the usage rate for caffeine is really low (0.1–1%) because it’s really concentrated, while the plant extract will not be. Please review the documentation provided for your extract to see what the recommended usage rates are, and adjust the amount called for to line up with the effective range of your extract; I would probably go with the maximum recommended usage rate as the extract contains caffeine, but isn’t pure caffeine.

Because caffeine is water soluble, replacing it with oils made from or infused with things that typically contain caffeine (coffee, tea, etc.) is not a good option—the amount of caffeine present is typically very low, while you may find the coffee scent to be very strong!

How to Work with It Include in the water phase of your formulations; it can be hot or cold processed as needed.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, caffeine should last approximately four years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks I’ve heard stories from people who have applied large amounts of caffeine creams before going to bed and then being unable to sleep, so tread lightly with pre-bedtime applications!
Recommended starter amount 10g (0.35oz)
Where to Buy it Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Formulations that Use Caffeine

Bisabolol

What is it? Bisabolol (more specifically, α-bisabolol) is a naturally occurring antioxidant, soothing, anti-inflammatory, and anti-irritant ingredient. It can be sourced naturally or synthesized; the naturally occurring version is more active than the synthesized version. Natural sources include chamomile essential oil, panama plinia, and salie.
INCI Bisabolol
Appearance Clear to pale yellow liquid
Usage rate 0.1–1%
Scent Weak floral scent
Solubility Oil
Why do we use it in formulations? Bisabolol offers soothing and anti-irritant properties to our formulations.
Do you need it? No
Refined or unrefined? I would recommend the natural version as it is more active than the synthesized version.
Strengths Excellent soothing ingredient at low concentrations.
Weaknesses Not very commonly available.
Alternatives & Substitutions Chamomile essential oil or an oil-soluble calendula or chamomile extract would be a good place to start. Check the bisabolol content in your chamomile essential oil to see how much bisabolol you’re getting and consider adjusting if necessary.
How to Work with It I typically include it with the essential oil blend in a formula, adding it during cool down.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, bisabolol has a stated shelf life of 24–36 months after manufacture (check with your supplier for details on what you’ve purchased).
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Try including up to 1% bisabolol in your formulations for an anti-inflammatory boost.
Recommended starter amount 10mL (1/3fl oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Formulations that Use Bisabolol

Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)

What is it? Niacinamide is “an amide derivative of nicotinic acid“, also known as Vitamin B3.
INCI Niacinamide
Appearance White powder
Usage rate 1–6%, though I’ve seen higher concentrations in store bought products
Scent Nothing much
Solubility Water
Why do we use it in formulations? Niacinamide is a fantastic skin care active! It helps down regulate sebum production, reduce inflammation, decrease acne lesions, increase the synthesis of ceramides, reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL), reduce fine lines, fade age spots and hyperpigmentation, and brighten the complexion.
Do you need it? No
Strengths Highly effective, well-researched skin care active with many benefits.
Weaknesses While it is usually well tolerated, it can be irritating to some. It can also be problematic in very acidic formulations as it can break down into niacin, causing flushing and irritation.
Alternatives & Substitutions Nothing is a complete substitution. Panthenol (vitamin B5) plays some of the same roles and can be a decent alternative. You could also try choosing a botanical extract that has comparable properties depending on what you are trying to achieve. A humectant or hydrolyzed protein could also be a decent choice.
How to Work with It Include it in the water phase of recipes. I’ve found varying recommendations for the final pH of the product; it’s typically around 6, but Amanda at Realize Beauty and Stephen at Kind Stephen have articles on on how and why a lower final pH is also likely to be ok.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, niacinamide should be shelf stable for up to three years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks If you want to try niacinamide in your skin care routine before investing in the raw ingredient I would highly recommend The Ordinary’s 10% Niacinamide + 1% Zinc formulation. It has absolutely revolutionized my skin and it’s under $6!
Recommended starter amount 10–30g (0.35–1oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier.

Some Formulations that Use Niacinamide

Urea

What is it? Urea is a naturally occurring nitrogen compound that is a potent moisturizer and skin-soothing ingredient. It is part of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) of the skin.
INCI Urea
Appearance White crystals, much like table salt.
Usage rate 2–40%
Scent None
pH 7.2
Solubility Water
Why do we use it in formulations? Urea is amazing. It brings both intense moisturization and gentle exfoliation to our products. If you have super dry skin, you need urea. Urea is the only thing that I’ve found that softens the dry skin on feet, knees, and elbows. It reduces trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) and helps the skin become more resilient. You can learn a lot more about all the wonderful things urea does for our skin here!
Do you need it? No, but if you have very dry skin I would recommend it.
Strengths It’s a fantastic non-irritating moisturizer that helps our skin cells turn over faster.
Weaknesses It is high in electrolytes so it doesn’t play well with anything electrolyte-sensitive.
Alternatives & Substitutions N-acetyl glucosamine, allantoin, and panthenol share some similarities with urea, though none are a perfect substitute. If you don’t have either of those you could try replacing urea with a humectant like sodium lactate or vegetable glycerine.
How to Work with It Include it in the water phase. I’ve found conflicting information about its heat stability; if you’re using a 5% or less it could easily be moved from the heated water phase to the cool down phase, but if you’re using enough that your cool down phase would be larger than 10% of the recipe that could destabilize your emulsion. It is most stable at pH 6.2.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, urea should last two years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Yes, urea does occur naturally in urine and sweat, but the stuff we use in cosmetics is synthesized!
Recommended starter amount 60g (2oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Formulations that Use Urea

N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG)

What is it? N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG) is a compound that is found in our skin. In skin care products it improves barrier function, boosts healing, reduces water loss, and brightens the complexion.
INCI N-Acetyl Glucosamine
Appearance White powder
Usage rate 1–4%, up to 10%
Scent None
Solubility Water soluble up to 25%
Why do we use it in formulations? I like to save N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG) for facial products, where it can work its magic and be appreciated. NAG does so many great things for the skin! It helps boost healing, improve barrier function, and reduce trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). It can function as a mild chemical exfoliant, but without irritation. It can help brighten the skin (especially in combination with niacinamide) and even out the complexion. It increases hyaluronic acid production in the skin, repairs sun damage, improves skin tone & hydration, and reduces the appearance of wrinkles.
Do you need it? No
Strengths It does many wonderful things for the skin, is non-irritating up to 10%, and isn’t pH sensitive so it’s fairly easy to incorporate into our products.
Weaknesses It is a bit on the more expensive side, depending on where you live & shop and how much you buy.
Alternatives & Substitutions Panthenol would be a decent alternative as it plays many similar roles. Otherwise you could replace N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG) with a humectant, like glycerine or sodium lactate, or just use more water.
How to Work with It Add it to the cool-down phase of your recipe. It is a good idea to pre-dissolve it in some water, but I’ve never had any issues adding it as a dry powder. Given it is only water soluble up to 25% you’d need to use a decent amount of water to dissolve it, and would want to make sure you were removing that water from your water phase earlier in the formulating process.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG) should last two years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks It can be derived from the shells of crustaceans; check with your supplier if this is a concern for you.
Recommended starter amount 30g (1oz) or less
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Formulations that Use N-Acetyl Glucosamine

Allantoin

What is it? Allantoin is a naturally occurring compound that is soothing, anti-irritating, and an FDA recognized skin protectant.
INCI Allantoin
Appearance Fine white crystalline powder
Usage rate 0.5–2%
Scent None
pH 7
Solubility Water soluble to just over 0.5%
Why do we use it in formulations? It helps boost healing by increasing skin cell turnover. It is moisturizing, soothing, anti-irritating, and stimulates healthy tissue production.
Do you need it? No
Strengths Effective skin protectant and general good-skin-health promoting ingredient at low concentrations.
Weaknesses It can crystallize into uncomfortable shards.
Alternatives & Substitutions You could try a water-based comfrey root extract or infusion, though you’d want to use more than called for amount of allantoin as the comfrey root will not contain nearly as much allantoin. Comfrey root can contain 0.6–4.7% allantoin (source), and with levels that low you won’t be able to achieve the same concentration of allantoin in your finished product. If the allantoin content is on the lower end your product would have to be pure comfrey! I’d probably go with the maximum recommend amount from your supplier, removing the additional amount from the distilled water in the formula.
How to Work with It Blend it thoroughly it in the cool-down phase (below 50°C)—this is so it doesn’t dissolve at higher temperatures and re-crystallize as the mixture cools, creating uncomfortable shards.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, allantoin should last two years. It is hygroscophic (it will absorb moisture from the air), so you might want to consider double-bagging it if you live somewhere humid.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Apparently it’s pronounced “uh-lan-toyn”.
Recommended starter amount 30g (1oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Formulations that Use Allantoin

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